Iran says plane carrying scientist jailed in US has taken off

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Tehran (AFP)

Iran's foreign minister said Tuesday that a plane had taken off from arch-foe the United States carrying scientist Sirous Asgari after his apparent release from a US prison.

Asgari was accused by a US court in 2016 of stealing trade secrets while on an academic visit to Ohio, but the 59-year-old scientist from Tehran's Sharif University of Technology was acquitted in November.

The academic told British newspaper The Guardian in March that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was holding him at a Louisiana detention centre without basic sanitation and refusing to let him return to Iran despite his exoneration.

"Good news, a plane carrying Dr. Sirous Asgari has taken off from America. Congratulations to his wife and family," Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote in a post on his Instagram account.

On Monday, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi had said Asgari's case was closed and that he was likely to return to the Islamic republic within two or three days.

ICE's database was still showing Asgari's status as "in custody" in the state of Mississippi on Tuesday.

The State Department has yet to respond to an AFP request to comment on his apparent release.

Both Iran and the United States hold a number of each other's nationals and they have recently called for them to be released amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iran is battling what is the Middle East's deadliest outbreak of the virus, while the US has reported the highest total number of deaths worldwide from the disease.

- Tensions and prisoners -

The Islamic republic is holding at least five Americans and the US had 19 Iranians in detention prior to Asgari's reported release, according to a list compiled by AFP based on official statements and media reports.

It remains unclear if the fate of Asgari is linked to any Americans held in Iran.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington escalated in 2018, after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran.

The sworn enemies have also appeared to come to the brink of a direct conflict twice in the past year.

The most recent was in January when Iran fired a barrage of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq in retaliation for a US drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general.

But Trump refrained from taking any military action in response.

The two have at times swapped prisoners despite having no formal diplomatic relations.

Iran exchanged Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in January 2016 for seven Iranians held in the US, on the day the nuclear agreement entered into force.

In December, Iran freed Xiyue Wang, a US academic, in exchange for scientist Massoud Soleimani and said it was open to further swaps.

Americans and dual nationals currently known to be held by Iran include US Navy veteran Michael R. White, Siamak Namazi along with his father Baquer, Morad Tahbaz, Gholam Reza Shahini, and Karan Vafadari.

Most of the Iranians held in the United States are dual nationals charged with evading sanctions by either exporting goods to Iran or using the US financial system.